Friday, 23 December 2011

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

“If they call us monsters…. What must they be like?”

I’ve reviewed every single episode of Doctor Who on this blog. Why on Earth did it take me so long to get round to watching this? Well, it was the lack of subtitles on the DVD, which is a pretty poor state of affairs for a DVD release. I’m not all that deaf, but lack of subtitles does tend to be something of a deterrent. Fortunately, though, the dialogue here is very clear and easy to follow.

Anyway, the film… Steven Moffat has recently given interviews in which he firmly (and clearly with the support of senior BBC bods; he wouldn’t be using words like “off-message” otherwise) squishes the idea that any hypothetical new film of Doctor Who might ignore the continuity of the television show, because that would “insult the audience.” I’m not sure he’s right for the right reasons, but I think he’s right to be wary of the idea; what if the film was successful and the new continuity came to obliterate the old? On the other hand, why make a two hour film based on the existing series when you could make thirteen episodes and a Christmas special? I don’t really see much sense in doing a film at all. We no longer live in an age where film is necessarily considered the superior medium, in any case.

And yet… it has been done before. And it seems to have done no harm to the TV show, wary though I am of taking this as a precedent. It’s not the best film ever made (mainly because the TV story on which it was based, Terry Nation’s The Daleks, isn’t the greatest story ever told), but it’s utterly fascinating to watch. I first saw this back in 1988, aged eleven, when I rented it from my local video shop. I’d become a Doctor Who fan just weeks earlier, catching the broadcast of part two of Remembrance of the Daleks, and I wouldn’t see The Daleks until Christmas Day 1989. I hated the film; it didn’t seem like Doctor Who at all. In hindsight, the reasons for this are rather interesting.

To begin with, this is bound to offend those with an excessive regard for “canon”. It simply doesn’t fit our conception of what Doctor Who is. The Doctor is a human scientist, who invented the TARDIS (which seems here to have mislaid its definite article) himself, and our four time travellers are not heroes but bumbling travellers. And yet, in 1965, neither of these things (perhaps the second, but only up to a point) was in any way inconsistent with what the audience had seen on their TV screen.

It’s rather difficult to judge Peter Cushing’s performance as the Doctor- or, rather, Dr. Who, as I shall have to get used to calling him; I’m usually the first to start winding up people who insist that “Doctor Who” is not the name of the character, but nevertheless it’s an assumption I tend to make for everyday purposes. Cushing is not playing a new version of the character, as per Troughton, Pertwee etc; he’s playing a version of the character Hartnell was playing on television, and that’s an important distinction. The concept of recasting the lead- regeneration, renewal, rejuvenation, whatever- had at this point occurred to no one, except possibly John Wiles. Cushing is playing the Doctor exactly as Hartnell did, albeit the cuddlier side of the character, with most rough edges removed. That makes it rather difficult to evaluate his performance, but he certainly has the charisma, even if he’s necessarily unable to put his personal stamp on the role, not being given the freedom allowed to Troughton or his successors.

The other three regulars are very different, too; Barbara (Barbara Who?!) is Dr. Who’s granddaughter, alongside Susan (Susie Who?), meaning that Dr. Who looks rather young for someone with a granddaughter in her twenties. Susan is very clever; Barbara, sadly, has no particular character traits. Ian is an accident prone Yorkshireman, here essentially to provide the comic relief. He isn’t so much the leading man as is his TV equivalent.

Oh, and TARDIS (no definite article, remember?) seems to work by disassembling particles and re-assembling them. This means, of course, that all four leads are instantly killed within the first five minutes, with copies of themselves having all those adventures on Skaro (although the planet isn’t named?), until they in turn all die at the end, and some second generation copies watch some stock footage of Romans.

The whole thing looks glorious in its Technicolor mid-Sixtiesness. It’s dated enormously, but that’s part of its charm; who can fail to be enchanted by the sight of Dr. Who reading The Eagle? There’s a sense of scale, too; the sets look much larger at Shepperton Studios than they did at Lime Grove, where most of them seemed about the size of the room I’m typing this in. The Daleks are also huge, impressive-looking, and there are loads of them, with nary a cardboard cut-out in sight. Admittedly, they do rather tend to spend all their time telling other Daleks things they already know for the benefit of the audience (something which, I believe, is known over on TV Tropes as “As You Know, Bob”), very…..very…..slowly….

Still, the cinematic scale also removes some of the coolness. The Dalek city doesn’t look anywhere as cool as the Expressionist original (although I like the moving eyestalks) and the orchestral score isn’t a patch on Tristram Cary. And other things are just different; the Thals look much, much gayer with all that make-up, and Antodus doesn’t die after falling down that chasm, as Milton Subotsky is rather more forgiving to his characters than Terry Nation. Mind you, the chasm looks far scarier than it did on the telly.

The climax is a bit sudden and dodgy, I suppose; this must be the slowest countdown ever, and the mighty Daleks are essentially defeated by a bit of pushing and shoving. This isn’t a great film; it’s rather formulaic and lacking in vim. But it’s entertaining enough.

Incidentally, a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

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